Book Review – Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes
This is the first novel in the “Hal Spacejock” series, and I’m reading it second, after “Hal Spacejock: Second Course.” Confused yet? Luckily, I wasn’t. Simon Haynes has constructed his series in such a way that each book is a stand-alone novel; it’s not at all like a fantasy epic where you have to remember endless lists of characters and places. This is a good thing. There was only one major ‘spoiler’ as a consequence of reading book #2 before book #1, but more on that later.
“Hal Spacejock” is an effortless, enjoyable read. I remember reading something Douglas Adams had written about his first “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novel, and it is worth retelling here. Adams said that he was aware that the book was very smooth and easy to read, but that it had taken a LOT of work to create this effect. I suspect that the same is true of Haynes’ novel. The book goes down so easily because it has been crafted. This is what I especially admire about Haynes’ art: you can see that he is a skilled craftsman of words.
In my review of Spacejock #2, I suggested that Haynes had found a good balance between necessary descriptive passages and humorous dialogue. The dialogue in this novel (which focuses, for the most part, on the interplay between Spacejock and the robot Clunk) is light, even breezy. It’s all mildly amusing. What impressed me this time around, however, was the sheer visceral quality of Haynes’ descriptive writing. Especially in regard to Spacejock’s spaceship, the Black Gull, I was impressed by the verisimilitude (how’s that for a wank word?) of the setting. In short, the Black Gull felt like a real spaceship. A dirty, broken-down spaceship, but a real one nonetheless.
Reviewers of the Spacejock novels tend to mention how the series seems to owe much of its heritage to Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Grant/Naylor’s “Red Dwarf.” While it’s true that there are similarities (there’s one conversation between Hal and a door on the Black Gull that seems to read straight from the pages of “Hitchhikers”), Haynes is no mere imitator. To me,”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a philosophical fantasy, while “Red Dwarf” is a bawdier, low-brow romp. “Hal Spacejock” is neither philosophical nor bawdy, but it has a gritty reality that neither of the other series’ possess.
Another interesting thing about this series is that, in its way, this is a low-tech future. Sure, there seem to be lots of spaceships whizzing around the galaxy, but there’s not a lot of virtual reality type stuff. I actually liked this aspect, and it ties in with my point about the ‘reality’ of the Black Gull. In Haynes’ universe, credits are physical tokens, not cyber-money (hmmm, like Netbank?). Robots are clunky, lumbering machines, not amorphous shapeshifters. To paraphrase “Hitchhikers” again: men were real men, robots were real robots, and spaceships really need regular maintenance. This is where I’m trying to avoid going off on a rant about ‘gimmicky future bullshit’ science fiction. Okay, I’ve taken a deep breath.
The main plot of “Hal Spacejock” sees Hal in his run-down ship trying to make ends meet. I’ve read a lot of SF, but I can’t remember too many novels in which the protagonist is acutely, genuinely, hard up. But Hal is skint. The main storyline sees the conniving Farrell Hinchfig trying to con Hal out of a shipment of robot parts intended for the cigar-chomping Walter Jerling. Hinchfig and his blaster-toting sidekick try to dupe Spacejock by creating a simulacrum of Jerling. Hinchfig’s spaceship is called the Volante. This is where I encountered my one and only problem with reading these novels out of order. Readers of this series will know that Hal’s spaceship in book two is the Volante. Therefore I was instantly alerted to the fact that Hal would win the day and end up trading in his rust-bucket for the brand new Volante, probably at Farrell Hinchfig’s expense. But that was a small worry. After all, I shouldn’t know that Clunk would end up as Hal’s sidekick for the rest of the series, but as his face is on the cover of all the Spacejock novels, that’s a pretty big giveaway.
Okay, SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t read this book, and I’ve whetted your appetite for it, then you can stop now. Still here? Right. Hal ends up with a whole host of nasty problems, in the form of Brutus, the debt-collection robot, and Farrell Hinchfig and his sidekick Terry. And then of course there’s Jerling on Hal’s case as well. There’s a series of shenanigans that takes place in or near an exclusive casino, and slightly before that, a very ‘lucky’ car-crash which reunites Hal and Clunk after they had been separated. Hal gets away with it in the end, of course, and there’s an elegant solution to the two sets of nasties that are on Hal’s tail. It all ends with a bang. And Hal ends up with the Volante, as I realised would happen. Hal, who had spent most of the book showing a blatant disregard for Clunk’s welfare, suddenly develops a kind streak, and buys the robot from Jerling before stealing the now-departed Farrell’s shiny spaceship. So it’s a happy ending.
For a theoretically ‘violent’ book (there’s no end of gun battles and explosions), there seems to be a strain of pacifism at work in “Hal Spacejock.” Hal and Clunk solve their problems through trickery and deception, rarely by brute force. This is a good message for anyone, but especially for teenagers: brains with always triumph over brawn (just ask Barry Hall 🙂 ) And so “Hal Spacejock” left me with a warm fuzzy feeling. Rarely have I read a book that was simultaneously so amusing and so warm-hearted. Humour usually revolves around laughing at the misfortune of others, but there’s precious little nastiness here. This is an excellent novel, and I would recommend it to anyone.